Illang: The Wolf Brigade (South Korea, 2018)
I’m a big fan of Kim Jee-woon. With the exception of his 2016 period piece, The Age of Shadows, I have seen and admired all of his work, and yes, that includes his rather dubious foray into Hollywood with The Last Stand (2013). Illang: The Wolf Brigade is the director’s first feature not based on an original screenplay – The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) takes inspiration from spaghetti westerns, but is very much an original creation – and also Kim’s first attempt at a feature science fiction film. Unfortunately, Illang is bound to disappoint not only science fiction fans, but Kim Jee-woon fans as well.
Set on the eve of Korean re-unification in 2029, the film centers on Lt. Lim (Gang Dong-won), a member of the Special Unit of the police department, operating covertly to combat terrorists and anti-government groups opposing unification. Lt. Lim begins to suffer from severe PTSD after witnessing a young woman commit suicide, an act that also causes the Special Unit to close temporarily. During the process of recovery and “re-education” (as referred to by the Special Unit), Lt. Lim meets with the dead woman’s sister, an ex-terrorist by the name of Lee Yoon-hee (Han Hyo-joo). Very soon, we find that behind all this there looms a plot by a rival government agency to permanently shut down the Special Unit. What follows next is a cat-and-mouse hunt between Lim and the government agents, a hunt that ends in a shocking and violent confrontation.
Illang is gritty, action-packed, and brimming with psychological tension, just like the 1999 animated film on which it is faithfully based. However, as is typical for much of South Korean cinema, Illang also bleeds melodrama. There’s no doubt that Kim has opted for a national appeal, sacrificing the universality of the original story for a greater chance at box-office success. The opening monologue about the unification of the two Koreas, which sets the scene and seems to become irrelevant for the rest of the film, perfectly exemplifies the approach. The Korean separation in a modern context is a sensitive issue that many South Korean films have taken up, see for example Shiri (1999), Joint Security Area (2000), Silmido (2003)and Crossing (2008). Illang, however, makes no real use of it other than for rudimentary expositional clutter.
For those already familiar with Jin-Roh, Illang offers little to no surprises. It is to the film’s benefit that Kim chose to leave the core of the story and characters unchanged, because anything he adds only worsens the experience. The film is riddled with details that are redundant and drama that feels fabricated. The 2018 version is only about 30 minutes longer than the original, but a thousand times more confusing. What it lacks in originality it makes up in girth and unnecessary complexity, presenting a merciless plot that’s a pain to follow. A prior familiarity with the story makes apprehension much easier, but adds no appreciation for Kim’s take.
In addition, the film seems unsure of what to do with its symbolism. The Grimm’s version of Red Riding Hood, so integral to the original story, is brought up in a beautifully animated scene, but then ignored until the very end. Moral ambiguity is in itself ambiguous, and all thematic nuance is lost to incomprehensibility. Kim appears uncertain, if not unconvinced, of the message he wants to impart to his audience, and in the end resolves the matter with a cop-out happy ending that drags much longer than it needs to.
The visual aesthetic of Illang also mirrors closely that of its animated counterpart. I have no special grievance with the look of film, except that I know Kim can do much better. The art direction is rather mediocre and the action scenes ordinary and uninspired; the future may as well be the present since what we see is pretty much modern-day Korea, only roughed up a little and with the occasional city-wide black out. Perhaps the director felt constricted by some absurd necessity to stay close to the source material, forgetting that what works in animation does not always work in live action.
Illang is just one of many dull remakes in cinema history that adds nothing to the franchise. It somehow manages to appear more cartoonish than its animated counterpart, widely missing the point of what made that version great. While one may wonder whether or not a remake was necessary in the first place, there’s no doubt that we could have certainly gotten something better than what Illang: The Wolf Brigade turned out to be.
This review was first posted at Mildly Scientific.